Even in a win, you could see the struggles as well as the strengths.
The Gophers women's basketball team defeated Purdue on Thursday night with a starting five that, without injured senior Gadiva Hubbard, had four sophomores and a freshman.
The game was tied with 6:52 left when Sara Scalia, who scored 30 points in the game, made three three-pointers during a 16-7 run. Exhale? No. Over the next few moments two turnovers by Scalia helped Purdue pull within three with 37 seconds left before the Gophers ultimately hung on.
That stretch symbolizes the team's up-and-down season, in which it has rebounded from a 2-7 start to win three straight. With more underclassmen on the roster than any other conference team, the combination of injury and illness was disastrous early. But a fuller roster has started to win.
The Gophers are 5-7 overall, 4-6 at the midpoint of this 20-game Big Ten season heading into Sunday's game against Iowa at Williams Arena.
Whalen is 2½ years into the first coaching job of her life and the learning curve is still steep. When the Gophers lost seven of their first nine games this season, some by lopsided scores, skeptics emerged.
But there is one thing Whalen is certain of:
"I know it's coming," she said of her program. "People are entitled to their opinions. But it's coming. It takes work, it's one day at a time. But I know we can be successful here. I'm excited for those moments when the team is gelling, the kids are feeling good. I know it's coming for this group."
An early-season explanation
Whalen had seven healthy players for a season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois, and three had never played in a college game. She had eight for a one-sided loss to Drake days later.
Injuries and COVID-19 hit the team hard. The team had to take a virus-induced break in November. There were days with three players on the practice floor.
Scalia, a sophomore, returned from a leg injury to play — without really having practiced — against Michigan State. Transfer Laura Bagwell-Katalinich played for the first time Dec. 14 vs. Northwestern. Transfer Kayla Mershon, finally deemed eligible, played for the first time against Indiana Dec. 23.
It was a perfect storm. A team with a lot of youth and several new faces needs time to find chemistry, but the Gophers really didn't get in a full practice with everyone available until late December. While going 1-6 to start conference play the Gophers played some of the Big Ten's best teams, including Top 25 foes Maryland, Indiana and Northwestern.
Conversely, the Gophers have won three straight, against Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue. While extenuating circumstances might explain some of the difficult start to the season, three straight wins against teams outside the top five in the conference should be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, Whalen points to some good trends. Jasmine Powell and Scalia — two of the first commits Whalen got after taking the job — have played as well as any backcourt in the conference during the winning streak. Transfer Kadi Sissoko shows immense promise. Mershon, of late, has made game-changing plays.
Finally getting time to practice together, the group is improving. Those one-sided losses early are hard to escape; the Gophers rank at or near the bottom of the league in points scored and points allowed, shooting and field goal defense.
"We definitely started out slowly," Scalia said. "Our chemistry wasn't there. But the past couple games [it has been]. It started out with our practices, the work we put in. We haven't been giving up, we kept going. And we're really coming along."
Putting it all together
The improvement was slow. The Gophers went to Wisconsin, led by 10 at the half, but needed overtime to win. Three days later in Iowa the Gophers were up 16 in the first half, 10 at halftime, but lost. At home vs. Penn State. the Gophers let the game get away in the third quarter.
Frankly, Whalen was trying to find a way to get through to her team. She had just seen an interview with Diana Taurasi talking about the 2000-01 Connecticut team that had what many consider the best starting five in history: Taurasi, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones.
That team lost a double-digit halftime lead and lost to Notre Dame in the national semifinals. Taurasi talked about how that team needed to address cracks in the team's foundation; that group responded by going undefeated the following season.
"If the greatest team of all time learns from its mistakes, we can too," Whalen said.
So she's up in front of the team one day, talking about that UConn team and it hits her. Foundation …
She went home and found an old Jenga game, in which a tower is built with blocks. The idea: The tower isn't strong without a strong foundation. From then on there has been a Jenga game at the practice facility and one taken on the road. Each day, if a practice has gone well, a block is added to the base. If not, one is taken away.
It's gotten to the point that when a block is to be added, a player is chosen to do it, and that player gets jokingly grilled in a news-conference format by her teammates.
Silly? Maybe. But the players have taken to it.
"We have bonded together to get on a roll," Powell said. "No matter who plays, we know the game plan, we're pretty much just really good together. We want to play together, win together, have fun together. That's propelled us to these wins."
The team lost to Maryland, the class of the conference, by 17, but Whalen saw progress. Then the Gophers went to Nebraska and won thanks to a 17-10 finish. At Penn State, the Gophers doubled up the Lions 32-16 late, in a revenge win. The team won, again, with a strong enough finish Thursday.
Learning for Whalen, too
It's been a growing process for Whalen, too. She has learned some hard lessons. She has had to pare down her playbook, keep things simple. Coming out of the WNBA, she brought a thick playbook, but it was too much. She is working to improve things like coaching against zone press schemes, which isn't seen much in the pros. Or baseline inbounds plays.
She has gotten better at utilizing timeouts. Thursday after Scalia hit a three-pointer to break a 59-all tie, Whalen called time. The stretch run was coming and she wanted her players — who'd logged big minutes — to be rested.
Whalen has worked hard on relating to her players; last year's situation with Destiny Pitts and her ultimate transfer were difficult learning experiences.
"A tough situation," she said. "You have to work to get to know players, build that relationship. But you also have to hold firm. I've held firm more this year, in terms of, 'These are the expectations, this is how it's going to be.' "
Whalen likes her team. Because of the NCAA's decision, nobody on this team is using a year of eligibility this year, and all should be back next season.
And more talent is coming. Roseau's Katie Borowicz, originally part of Whalen's 2021 recruiting class, along with Watertown-Mayer's Maggie Czinano and Wayne (Mich.) Memorial forward Alanna Micheaux, is already on the team and has seen minutes. Borowicz and Micheaux were top-100 recruits.
Whalen is also making inroads with top in-state talent; already committed for 2022 are Wayzata guard Mara Braun, Eden Prairie's Nia Holloway and Chaska's Mallory Heyer.
"The foundation of this group is building," Whalen said. "And what's getting built is really cool and really special. This is a group I feel has a lot of potential."